On U.S.-Cuba Relations: Do you believe in the power of ideas?

September 28, 2012

Today, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a conference is taking place titled: Cuba & California, Prospects for Change and Opportunity.

Our colleague, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, and until last month a distinguished professor at the University of Havana, was scheduled to give a keynote address today on Prospects for US-Cuban Relations.  Dr. Alzugaray arrived very late, which reveals little about his usual penchant for punctuality and much about the prospects for a changed relationship with Cuba.

Invited to speak at the conference months ago, Dr. Alzugaray applied for his visa and went through the ritualistic process of being interviewed once again by U.S. consular officials in Havana,to justify his reason to visit the United States. He had been a visiting scholar at several U.S. universities over many years, most recently last Fall at City University of New York.  After his multiple inquiries and a long delay, the U.S. Interests Section informed him yesterday morning to expect his visa at noon, giving him just enough time to catch his 4:00 p.m. flight to Miami. By 1:00 there was still no visa, and at 4:30 p.m. he learned there had been an unexplained delay, and the visa would not be available. He went for a walk with his granddaughter and at 5:30 p.m. returned home to learn the visa would be waiting for him at the Interests Section until it closed at 6:00 p.m. A kind consular official waited there until 6:30, and Dr. Alzugaray managed to get on an 8:00 p.m. plane to Miami and an early morning flight to California. Adding insult to this shameful – and at the least incompetent – exercise in disrespect, TSA officers detained the 69-year old professor for three hours when he arrived in Miami.

Another colleague, Rafael Hernández, editor of the internationally acclaimed journal Temas, wasn’t so lucky.  Although he’d been invited to speak at the same conference and applied for a visa at the same time Dr. Alzugaray had applied, Dr. Hernández still has not received notice of whether his visa application has been approved or denied. He had to cancel his trip.

If you think this is bizarre behavior by a country that is deeply critical of the Cuban system, and any restrictions on travel and freedom of expression, we couldn’t agree more.

The battle over U.S.-Cuba relations has been long fought, is deeply complicated, and never works out well during the heat of a presidential election amidst dueling definitions of “American exceptionalism.”

One set of battle lines in this debate, however, seems pretty simple and clear.  One side believes in isolation, blocking Americans from visiting Cuba and stopping Cubans from visiting the U.S.  They don’t want our fellow citizens exposed to the realities of Cuba (the good or the bad) and don’t want Americans hearing speeches by people like Carlos Alzugaray or Rafael Hernández, because they want us to be ignorant of Cuba, its complexity, and prefer us to live with the mysteries and fears dating from the beginning of the Cold War that linger to this day.

That side, centered among the hardest of hardliners in Miami, exerts staggering control over U.S. policy toward the island, and games the system to extend that control, sometimes in peculiar and tawdry ways.  If you don’t believe us, you might read this story from the Miami Herald about the scandal engineered by Rep. David Rivera in his reelection campaign that will astonish those who still refer to publications as “family newspapers.”

The other side believes that Americans are smart enough to figure out Cuba for themselves and ought to be given the opportunity to do so – not only by visiting the island but also by having opportunities, like many should have in Berkeley today to hear Cubans visiting the U.S. speak.  These opinions, incidentally, are increasingly held by Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere who are now traveling to Cuba by the hundreds of thousands every year.  Together, this is the side that believes in the power of engagement, debate, and ideas.

So, it came as a surprise and a disappointment to us that someone sitting in Washington, who works for the Obama administration and has the power to approve visa applications, didn’t behave like we were on that side of the engagement versus isolation debate.   Of course, that might change after the election.  Or not.

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Cuba and Russia, a tale of two USAID programs; Obama Moves on Terror List (Not on Cuba)

September 21, 2012

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As we published this week’s blast, news alerts were issued that the “People’s Mujehedeen,” or MEK, is being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, based in part, the NY Times is reporting, on the MEK’s cooperation in moving 3,000 of its members out of its long time location in Iraq.  Now that Cuba has recently been recognized for its diplomatic role in peace talks soon to take place between Colombia’s government and the FARC, we would like to believe that Cuba will be rewarded for its cooperation and removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list (see more below).

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We’ve written before about the serious problems posed to U.S. interests by the “regime change” programs financed by USAID and undertaken in Cuba.  We return to this subject this week and want to explain why.

Days ago, the New York Times published this story, Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups.  $50 million in aid will be cut off.  This follows actions by Russia’s government to require organizations which receive such aid to register as foreign agents.  The article makes clear that Russia is now clamping down hard on dissent, but that a number of other U.S. allies have also objected to these programs run by “outside groups telling them how to run their affairs.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is quoted saying about Russia’s decision to end the USAID role, “It is their sovereign decision to make,” and the Times went on to reflect her view that if Russia didn’t want the money, it could be better spent elsewhere.

Later, the State Department released the transcript of her official briefing in which she explained:

“…we have committed to the Russian Government that there’ll be no new contracting, no new programming, as of October 1st. But we have also asked for some time to wind down the mission, to conclude the programs that we have underway.”

The U.S. government through USAID operates a considerably more aggressive program in Cuba, aimed explicitly at overturning the island’s government.  Cuba outlawed participation in these programs in the late 1990s, as the U.S. government well knows.  Yet, as previously accounted in Foreign Policy, the State Department and USAID have wasted about $200 million conducting these efforts over the past ten years and have little to show for them.

Because they operate covertly, and Cubans who are touched by these programs often know nothing of their provenance, they put the intended beneficiaries at great legal risk – but not only Cubans.  Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Cuban prison, after entering the island falsely using a tourist visa on five occasions, bringing with him high technology communications equipment, as AP reported, including a specialized mobile chip often used by the Pentagon and CIA when they need to make satellite signals impossible to track.

Mr. Gross has suffered greatly since his arrest on December 9, 2009.  But the administration seems, to put it charitably, somewhat disengaged toward his plight.  As Fulton Armstrong, a retired analyst formerly with the National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in the Miami Herald:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad, and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release.  When a covert operative working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric….and refuses to talk.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently returned from Cuba deeply concerned about his physical condition.  Long-time advocates of cutting off travel to Cuba colorfully call Mr. Gross a hostage, and urge the Obama administration to turn the screws of sanctions tighter to force his release.   The Obama administration’s public posture is to demand that Cuba’s government unilaterally release him, but has never explained why it would do so after he was convicted of violating their laws.

In the case of Russia, the Obama administration was presented with a problem – Russia’s demand to cut off the democracy promotion programs it operates in that country – and it responded by conducting a negotiation to end them, because they recognized Russia’s sovereignty and are willing to find another way to help Russian NGOs.

For Mr. Gross’s predicament, this is the model, and it starts by respecting Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just this week, Cuba’s government again offered to sit down and talk with the United States about resolving his case.  There is no rational reason that should deter our government from doing so.   The two governments should sit down, right away, and hash this out.  Otherwise, the Obama administration must be asked: if it’s prepared to negotiate with Russia on USAID programs, why is it unwilling to do so to free Mr. Gross?

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And Justice for Some

September 14, 2012

We open this week with a story about justice, one that will have special resonance for those who remember victims of atrocity and terror in the 1970s and the 1980s, and for others whose accounts have not yet been settled.

On September 11, a retired Salvadoran military officer with the curious name Inocente Orlando Montano admitted to the crime of lying to U.S. immigration officials.  But Inocente’s guilt involves far greater offenses than living illegally in the Boston area for the last decade.

Colonel Montano is connected to numerous killings, but in particular to one of the most infamous human rights crimes of the many committed during El Salvador’s civil war:  the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. A United Nations Truth Commission investigation of the massacre placed Montano “in all the meetings in which the assassination was discussed, planned, and ordered,” news accounts said. He also was a key player in covering up the role of the military’s high command in the crime.

In May 2011, a Spanish judge indicted twenty suspects in the Jesuit murders, Montano among them.  He is now, finally, at risk of extradition to Spain to face legal accountability for his actions, along with 19 other suspects.  The Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the case in Spain, tracked Montano down in Everett, MA; Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities determined that he had lied repeatedly about his past on legal forms to qualify for a temporary protected immigration status offered to those who cannot safely return to their own countries. This protection status was supposed to be for victims, not victimizers.  That he is a few steps closer to justice and a few steps further away from his anonymous unaccountable life is a miracle worth savoring.

And yet, 1500 miles away in Miami a terrorist named Luis Posada Carriles, who also lied his way into this country, continues to walk free.  Posada is identified in declassified FBI and CIA reports as the mastermind of the October 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 people aboard.  He has openly admitted orchestrating seven bombings of tourist hotels in Havana in 1997 and 1998, killing a 32-year old Italian businessman and wounding 11 others. In November 2000, he was arrested, then convicted and served prison time in Panama for a plot to blow up Fidel Castro and many other people in an auditorium.  After all of this, he made his way into the U.S., entering illegally, and then lied to authorities under oath about how he got here, and about his past involvement in terrorism.  Although the Justice Department prosecuted him for immigration fraud, he was acquitted at a trial in El Paso, Texas, last year.

When he was incarcerated before his trial, ICE officials formally labeled him “a danger to both the community and national security of the United States.” Yet today, that “danger” is free to strolls the streets of Florida. Although the Obama administration has a number of recourses to hold him accountable for his violent past, including extraditing him to Venezuela or designating him a terrorist under the provisions of the Patriot Act and detaining him indefinitely, there are no signs of judicial activity in his case. It is, after all, an election year in which Florida is a significant swing state.

Justice, as well as the credibility of this administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism, requires that action be taken to hold Posada accountable for his many violent crimes. As the case of Col. Montano demonstrates, where there is a will, there is a way. We will have to wait until after November 7th to find out if justice for some will move toward justice for all.

Note: More information on the case of Luis Posada Carriles can be found in this article by Peter Kornbluh published by the Nation and at the website of the National Security Archive.

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Not Like Oil and Water – Cuba and the US Can Cooperate on Drilling

September 7, 2012

During the research and writing phase for our report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provided invaluable information and guidance to us.

He has guest written the following opening essay on his organization’s analysis of foreign policy obstacles to cooperation with Cuba to protect the environment and some promising progress that is now being made because our country and Cuba are sitting at the table together:

The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report called Bridging the Gulf in which we concluded that “current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot” that is detrimental to the interests of both countries.  A failure to cooperate on oil spill planning, prevention, and response in the Gulf of Mexico could result in devastating environmental and economic impacts on a scale greater than the 2010 BP oil disaster.

Recently, I witnessed a potential bright spot in US-Cuba relations that could lead to real and meaningful cooperation in protecting Cuban and American shores from future oil spills.

As the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was preparing to drill off of Cuba’s northwest coast in August, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met in Mexico City to discuss how to work together to prevent and respond to future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.  The meeting was the fourth in a series of landmark talks hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and included officials from Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other countries in the region.  I was among the handful of industry and environmental representatives invited to attend.

I was struck by the candid back-and-forth discussions on the risks involved in deep water oil drilling and by the constructive exchanges between delegates from Cuba and the United States.  I came away convinced that negotiators from both countries are operating in good faith and are committed to making progress on this issue.

That being said, more needs to be done.

Attendees agreed that the BP oil disaster was a wake-up call and that failure to heed the lessons learned from it would be an inexcusable and costly mistake. Chief among those lessons is that oil spills do not observe political boundaries and, as such, joint planning among all countries in the region is critical. The event also taught us that sufficient public and private resources must be available to contain and clean-up oil pollution as soon as possible.  In fact, the scale of response needed for the BP spill was unprecedented—6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and equipment resourced globally.

Several presenters in Mexico City emphasized that full and timely access to private sector equipment and response personnel, wherever they are located, is fundamental to responding effectively to future oil spills.

This lesson is particularly relevant to the current U.S.-Cuba talks.

If a major oil spill were to occur in Cuban waters anytime soon, the U.S. Coast Guard—as incident commander—would be able to marshal the resources needed to address oil pollution after it enters our waters.  The agency has neither the authority nor the mandate, however, to support response and clean-up activities in Cuban waters.  Furthermore, the Cuban government would be hamstrung in its ability to solicit direct help from private sector oil spill response companies in the United States.  Currently, only a few American companies are licensed by the U.S. government to work in Cuba (actual names and numbers of license holders are not a matter of public record.).

The Obama Administration could solve this problem by directing the Treasury Department to adopt a new category of general licenses to allow U.S. individuals from qualified oil services and equipment companies to travel to Cuba and provide technical expertise in the event of an oil disaster.  The Administration should also direct the Commerce Department to pre-approve licenses for the temporary export of U.S. equipment, vessels, and technology to Cuba for use during a significant oil spill.

The U.S. and Cuba have laid an unprecedented foundation for cooperation on offshore oil safety and environmental protection.  They should continue their talks in earnest and produce a written agreement on joint planning, preparedness and response as soon as possible.

What Dan describes here, unfortunately, is extraordinary.  In fact, it should be typical.  Engagement between the U.S. and Cuba on a host of issues is the right way forward, and a means to the larger end of bringing confidence to this relationship that will lead to a discussion of the differences that divide us and, ultimately, normalization.  We thank Dan for his leadership and his contribution.

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